November 26, 2012 7:39 PM | By Kim Hughes

Iceland's Of Monsters and Men rise from nation's economic woes

The band may not have been possible without Iceland's economic meltdown

Of Monsters and Men

Of Monsters and Men (Universal Music Group)

Even a die-hard new music fan could be forgiven for blinking and missing the boat on Icelandic folk-pop army Of Monsters and Men and their startling trajectory from unknowns to bona fide global phenoms in a little over two years. Theirs is the kind of success story dreams – and major careers worth millions of dollars – are built on.

In 2010, the six member combo, led by songwriting-vocalists and guitarists Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson, won a local Icelandic battle of the bands competition.

A subsequent EP showcasing Of Monsters and Men’s winsome, rollicking patchwork pop and fantastical lyrics caught the ears of astute listeners dialed into the peculiar magic of Icelandic bands heavily influenced by eclectic Europeans (think Sugarcubes or Sigur Rós).

Suddenly, before anyone could say Reykjavík, OMAM was performing sold out shows globally, their male-female tag-team lead and sparkling acoustic fairy tales drawing favourable comparisons to Arcade Fire by way Mumford & Sons shot through with Björk.

The band’s frankly irresistible, brass-goosed debut disc, My Head Is an Animal, is fast-tracked to best-of lists worldwide and has already achieved major sales in Australia, the U.S., Japan, Europe and Canada, where it was certified platinum (sales on excess of 100,000 copies) just in time for two sold-out Toronto shows earlier this month.

In conversation with MSN, OMAM singer/songwriters Nanna and Raggi seem at once overwhelmed by their head-spinning ascension and strangely humble about it. In the kind of perfect English native speakers seldom achieve, they discussed the craziness of the past year, and how Iceland’s economic meltdown ironically made their band possible in the first place.

You guys received platinum records last night – pretty exciting.

Raggi: It is. It’s awesome. It’s the first one outside of Iceland. Yay Canada!

Your songs have a lot of moving parts and are quite complex. So how do you know when something is finished?

Raggi: That’s a very hard thing to know. There eventually comes a time when you just have to leave it alone. You could work on a song forever and never be happy. We are six of us and all of us have a voice. I think even if you’re not satisfied, then sometimes you can be satisfied that the other person is satisfied.

There is a sense of whimsy to your music; the lyrics especially are quite filmic and seemingly plucked from fairy tales. Where does this stuff come from?

Nanna: It’s a mixture of everything. Maybe we read about something and try to get into that mindset. Or you hear about someone and try to imagine what kind of person he is. Film is also an influence.

Raggi: Nanna and I write lyrics together so there is always a lot of conversation going on. We describe things to each other and have to be very visual, so these songs turn into little films on our heads. It’s the only way we can get into the same world.

Have you been approached about using your music in movies?

Raggi: Yes. One song was used in a trailer in a Matt Damon film but I cannot remember which movie. And there are some things we are working on that we cannot discuss. But actually we are excited about this prospect because music lives forever in a film.

What language do you write in?

Raggi: English. We are often asked why, as people from Iceland, we write and sing in English. There is no real way for us to answer that. It’s actually quite common in Iceland to write in English, and maybe it was just more interesting for us to write in a language we don’t know. But looking back we are happy because English is a common language and we want lots of people to hear the stories that we are telling.

Nanna: Plus a lot of the music we listen to and are inspired by is in English. I am very interested in one day writing in Icelandic. I think it would be a fun challenge for us. But I think it needs to fit the song and just happen very naturally. It can’t be us just decided; ‘Now we’re going to write in Icelandic.’ Usually songs call out to be written in English.

What about allowing your music to be used in advertising?

Raggi: We have done that though we always think hard about it.

Nanna: It’s a delicate thing and I am always kind of uncomfortable with it…

Raggi: …but we are musicians – six in the band – and we are travelling with a big crew. Things costs money and album sales are not what they used to be. So ads are a way to get paid while still doing what you love to do. You do what you have to do to be able to do what you do, if you know what I mean.

Sometimes it seems like the hottest music scenes pop up in the most unlikely places, mainly because there is nothing else for young people to do. With its economy in shambles, is that the case with Iceland now?

Nanna: That is totally the case. This band was kind of formed like that because we didn’t have anything else to do. Many people in Iceland our age or younger play in bands; with things being tough, people look to create things for themselves. Plus with the economy, we used to have these big shows with big artists. Now you have young bands trying to get into smaller clubs but those clubs are shutting down.

Raggi: That’s the irony of this economic crisis. We are relying a lot more on tourists now coming to Iceland for the culture, but they are building the hotels on the spots of the culture, tearing down the clubs and the places young bands would play.

Nanna: There is this mindset in Iceland where everyone is so proud of their musicians, of Björk and Sigur Rós and so proud of us but they forget that this has to start somewhere, with the kids getting out and playing music. They forget that a lot of the money Iceland is making through tourism is because of the music. Sigur Rós have drawn tourists to Iceland.

Raggi: We feel strongly about these venues that we played when we were coming up. There was this one club called Factory that would hold about 200 people and we played our biggest shows there when we were still unknown. There are plans to tear it down so we are going to play three shows in January to protest that. I’m not very political but…

Nanna: …we feel that we need to raise our voices about this.

You’ve been so well received everywhere – in America, Europe, Australia and I think you also have some dates pending in Japan. Which place has been the most exciting to crack?

Nanna: Japan was a big one. We have a tour there after Christmas but I am going early just to experience it. I always wanted to go backpacking through Asia, and I am also going to visit Thailand.

Raggi: But it’s all been great. America seemed to get us, which was just ridiculous; it’s totally different from Iceland. We’re so small and calm and everything in American is so hectic. Then we went to Australia and we had never been so far away from home. And Canada too. It’s all been so amazing.

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